The Power of Mystery

Image of Fog Cloaked Alley

Andy Warhol, Robert Greene, Marcel Duchamp, and JJ Abrams walk into a darkened bar somewhere in eastern Europe.

Andy clings to a Campbell’s soup can. Robert Greene flips through an orange book. A urinal sits in Marcel’s lap. And JJ Abrams — beaming — hugs a light brown box.

The bartender approaches Robert Greene and says, “So, what are you reading?”

Andy slams his little fist on the table and says, “You mean to tell me that in a room with a man wearing a shock of white hair and holding a can of tomato soup, all you notice is a book? A stupid little orange book?”

The bartender eyes Andy for a moment, shrugs, and turns back to Robert, “What are you reading?”

“For God’s sake, man, I’m holding a urinal. Who cares what he’s reading,” Marcel says.

The bartender looks down on Marcel, raises an eyebrow, then turns his attention back to Robert.

“Look!” JJ Abram says, “It’s a big box with a question mark on it! Aren’t you dying to know what’s inside my box? The one that rattles when I shake it? My mystery box? The one I bought thirty years ago and never opened? Don’t you want to know what’s inside? I do!”

“I’m not into boxes,” the bartender says, “So, what are you reading?”

Robert Greene looks up, smiles, and says, “Oh, were you talking to me? This book? Oh, well, it’s about … ”

At that moment, an airplane crashes into the bar, killing everyone inside.

What’s in your book?

Does the scene above remind you of anything?

Maybe a scene from one of JJ Abram’s films, perhaps? It’s a make-believe story, no doubt. Told to demonstrate a simple truth: all the men above believed in the power of mystery.

Andy Warhol once said,

I learned that you actually have more power when you shut up.

Marcel Duchamp believed the less you say, the more profound and mysterious you appear. He refused to explain his works of art — like a urinal he titled “Fountain” — and his fame grew.

JJ Abram said,

Mystery is more important than knowledge.

And Robert Greene, reading out of the orange book, said,

Humans are machines of interpretation and explanation; they have to know what you are thinking. When you carefully control what you reveal, they cannot pierce your intentions or your meaning.

But what do these folks have to do with social media? Scarcity? And why should you care?

Let me explain …

How to be mysterious

Social media is a tool that gives you the ability to say whatever you want, when you want. It gives you the ability to be authentic — one of the key factors behind getting people to know, like, and trust you.

But that freedom — if not checked — has its costs:

  • The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.
  • By babbling on you may appear silly, less intelligent. An air bag. (By contrast, powerful people impress by saying less. Think Seth Godin.)
  • Risk of over-familiarity. This is why strangers have an aura of power, while we take our spouses for granted.

See, in an era of bloggers, social media, and smartphones, it takes a little effort to control that endless spilling of personal details that render a person stale. But this is not an invitation to lie or deceive. This is actually an invitation to elevate your scarcity. How?

  • Hold something back. This is not unlike the tease. Or the internal cliffhanger.
  • Pull a disappearing act, like the unannounced social media sabbatical.
  • Each question you answer should lead to another question.
  • Hold some parts of your life close to the vest. Vow never to talk about that area.
  • Allude to things, but don’t fully explain.
  • Use misdirection. Suggest one thing while you are working on another.
  • And delete all your tweets. Like someone on our staff regularly does.

Naturally, there are risks to this approach. It raises the stakes and you must deliver on any promise you make. Any suspense you create. You must deliver.

And you mustn’t be so mysterious that you are a turn off. With the information you provide your audience should still be able to guess and distill your essence — like knowing what’s in the orange book without knowing exactly what’s in the orange book.

If that makes sense?

And, if it doesn’t, don’t you want to know more?

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Reader Comments (31)

  1. says

    That was a mysterious read and interesting advice.
    If to add some more subtle technique then it could be like a fortune tellers’ guide :) Make people think of what they want to think and just follow their imagination when you tell them your mysterious story.

  2. says

    The biggest drawback I see to this approach is that you must be damn good to make an impact. Mysterious people need to have their story, or their copy, down pat, because the more you hide, the more you need to make an impact when you show your self.

    Other than that, great lesson here. Thanks 😉


  3. says

    I love a good mystery, and this is fine up to a point – as long as you’re not being enigmatic just to appear smart, or because you’ve nothing much to say. You also need to know your audience and have good judgement as to when it’s appropriate – at times, clarity is crucial. If you’re so obtuse that people end up feeling you’ve misled them and wasted their time, this strategy could be counter-productive.

    And personally, sorry if I seem like a Philistine, but I think the jury’s still out on the urinal. 😉

  4. says

    Mystery and Discovery are opposite sides of the same coin. I believe both apply to all good writing.

    However, how you apply the two is an art most of us are still trying to master.

    Thanks for the “mysterious” article, it in it we can “discover” new thoughts about writing.

    Adventure Insider

    Explore the Adventurous Life

  5. says

    “Each question you answer should lead to another question.”

    This was a great tip. Very nice article about a very difficult subject: mystery around someone definitely isn’t an accident!

    I think that one of the best ways to generate mystery is to have a lot of things on the table and give some hints about them. Not too much, but just enough for people to start asking questions.

    Smart people on movie and game business do it pretty well.

  6. Jessica V. says

    Silence is golden and I feel like mystery plays a big part in it. As soon as someone says “don’t look in that” or “you can’t go in that room” I immediately want to know everything about it. Mystery is a power tool when used correctly.

  7. says

    “It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion.”

    It’s from my big box of quotes! Aren’t you dying to know whose name is on the mystery envelope of quotes I pulled from my big box of quotes?


      • says

        Google is right! :-) Not an easy one to guess, I guess, now curious about what your other guesses were…

        This episode only goes to show we are now in a brand–new world. We used to be able to remember AND to forget, but now with the Internet forget is a thing of the past.

        Forget it :-) just to say I thought Albert’s quote fitted in nice with the quotes of your post, glad you like it, wishing you a wonderful day.

  8. says

    Sometimes your timing is uncanny it seems…I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks ever since Robert Bruce posted a similar comment (in his one sentence style as always.)

    Familiarity does breed contempt, for sure…but some other commentators here are making good points about not swinging too far to the other side and being overly mysterious for the sake of it, which probably would backfire with most people.

    I think Jesus of Nazareth set a great example for us here. There were times when he spoke from his heart in a direct and honest way. At other times he spoke using stories (parables) and rarely took the time to explain them afterwards. He left the figuring out up to the listener.

    There were even times when he made humorous comments….

    But know this…He also would go completely mute and not say a word a lot, when most of us would be running off at the mouth in the same situation.

    Yep, Jesus makes a great social media role model and in my opinion serves as a great example to follow here.

    Thanks for taking on this topic, Demian.

  9. says

    Demian- Always one of the most difficult things to teach young trial lawyers. Keeping your jury interested throughout the entire trial is challenging. Using this approach and bringing it all together during closing argument can be extremely powerful if done correctly. But back to social- absolutely important. Excellent post!

  10. says

    Awesome awesome post here Demian!

    I think that mystery is one of the most powerful tools of story telling – it allows the reader to shape the story and imagine and create a narrative. It makes the story come alive because mystery means that the reader HAS to exercise his/her imagination to come to the conclusion, making them far more involved in the process and story.

  11. says

    Hi Demian!

    I’m not sure if I love the article, too mysterious perhaps?

    I will keep the phrase “Each question you answer should lead to another question.”

    But saying one thing and doing another? Absolutely hate it, I do have a reason.
    See you next time,

  12. says

    So true. Working in the music industry, I can tell you the most successful people leave a little something to the imagination. They make you wonder what they’re writing about, rather than being so clear you have no doubt, because they know you’ll fill in the blanks with something better than they could create themselves.

  13. says

    Mmm, what an interesting post. I tend to be a big over-sharer. Being a writer, I am constantly writing and editing lines in my head that I can’t wait to share. But I’m going to try and master the art of mystery and leaving people wanting more…
    Thank you for an excellent blog.

  14. says

    Wonderful article. To me, social media is a never-ending cocktail party. Folks come and go, drop into one conversation, eavesdrop on others. Every now and then, I have to leave for some fresh air and to recover from the perpetual hangover. But I always come back.

  15. says

    “With the information you provide your audience should still be able to guess and distill your essence.”

    Good point in there Demian!

    Giving smart ways to improve your blog or consider this giving thrill to your audience.
    Well, if one is not good in doing such mystery then they should practice first. Being safe is always boring! So I encourage bloggers to try something new.

    Thank you for sharing this post!
    I found and “kingged” this on the Internet marketing social site

  16. says

    As a mystery writer, I agree with your premise. Ever since my childhood days with a Hardy Boy’s mystery, I learned the power of the unknown outcome. What’s going to happen? That simple question kept me going chapter after chapter. It was almost impossible to put the book down, since each chapter ended with another hook. Good copy is the same way…

    I would wager a guess towards the orange book, but I don’t know much about that color. My new book is all about red… blood red… and is entitled Blood Red P——

  17. says

    Hello Mr. Farnworth,

    LOOOL! What a nice post! “Mystery is more important than knowledge”?
    On the one hand, a cave is 100 times more mysterious than your room. However, would you like to live in a cave for the rest of your life just because it is more mysterious? :)

    On the other hand, I understood what you want to communicate. Smart post. Very smart.

    I like the tip to create, discretely, an aura of mystery. It will give you, in time, an aura of power. And you also provided some practical advice:

    “Delete all your tweets”

    LOL!!! What a good idea! I will do that. You bet.


    You have succeeding in creating an aura of mystery with a smart post that shows real literary talent. Superb example of practicing what you preach.

    Have a wonderful and mysterious day

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